Celebrating 20 Years of Epcot's Flower & Garden Festival

by Jeff Kober, contributing writer

This month marks the 20th year of Epcot's Flower & Garden Festival. It holds a special place in my heart, as 20 years ago, on this same month, our family moved to Central Florida. I can recall getting into the park with the help of some wonderful friends and cast members and staying until after Illuminations. The flowers were beautiful, but what I most recall was that we were so new to the area, we ended up getting lost that night trying to drive back to our new home.

A sign at the park entrance celebrates 20 years of Epcot's Flower & Garden Festival. Photo by J. Jeff Kober.

Epcot was always beautiful long before the first festival. You could always find flowers the moment you walked into the park, Future World, and throughout World Showcase, And of course, there was The Land. No pavilion showcased the concept of gardening like The Land. Clearly Epcot—known that year as Epcot '94—already had a lot going for itself. In fact, it had just been updated with Living with the Land and with Food Rocks. So the focus was clearly included the west side of Future World.

This year's display celebrates not just Epcot's 20th Flower & Garden anniversary, but its entire heritage in horticulture, starting with Disney Legend Bill Evans. Photo by J. Jeff Kober.

The first years set the foundation of what has always been part of the Flower & Garden Festival with specialty displays such as the flower trees, potted displays, and international themes—parterre gardens in France and bonsai displays in Japan always come to mind.

The Italy pavilion adds a display of potted flowers (a favorite of this writer). Photo by J. Jeff Kober.

Disney has been a master at topiaries since "it's a small world" was created at Disneyland back in the mid 60's. That same tradition came out to Walt Disney World in the 1970s. But those topiaries were permanent fixtures, mostly of trees and large plants such as boxwood, juniper, and yew, that required several years to grow into shape.

Last year's topiary from Cars now features an entire "where is it" scavenger hunt within its garden. Photo by J. Jeff Kober.

With the Flower & Garden Festival, Disney came to master a new type of topiary--one that was made by stuffing a topiary frame with sphagnum moss in a way that you could grow the plants quicker, as well as be able to move them around. In examples like the Lightning McQueen topiary, you could use creeping ficus, mondo grass and begonias. Moreover, you could create a more detailed and colorful topiary that would be shaped into more recognizable shapes; Disney went from elephants and giraffes to Mickey and Minnie. Over time, these topiaries grew in number and became a main staple of the Flower & Garden Festival.

As usual, a number of festival-themed merchandise is available at the Festival Center. Photo by J. Jeff Kober.

It didn't take long for retail shopping to start making inroads to the festival. What was in the first few years just a handful of items now includes entire kiosks found throughout the park dedicated to different artistic wares. 

A playground celebrates Disney's new theatrical release of "Oz, the Great and Powerful." Photo by J. Jeff Kober.

In the mid 1990s, Disney experimented with different concepts. For example, some major displays with different themes such as backyard gardening have appeared next to Germany and Morocco. Children's playgrounds were often added to these areas and then came down after the festival. The miniature German garden railroad was introduced one year. It actually was torn apart a time or two after each festival until they finally settling down with a permanet display that now continues yeararound. Since then, it, too has been added upon. 

Bella (left) and Will Grower are Epcot's own unique "streetmosphere" performers who have been part of the festival for many years. Photo by J. Jeff Kober.

One major feature introduced over the last 10 years has been to tie a particular garden setting to an upcoming Disney film. Tinker Bell and her friends were featured in a specialty garden over the last several years, tied to those films that focused on her adventures.

The Florida Fresh market stand offers a dish that is the writer's favorite: Watermelon salad. Photo by J. Jeff Kober.

Noticeably absent this year is Disneynature, which usually comes to the Flower & Garden Festival in the form of a sand sculpture. This is the first time in five years that Disneynature hasn't had a film offering, so there isn't sand sculpture to appreciate. But Bears is scheduled for next year, so look for the possibilities that might come with that.

Disney-Pixar's upcoming film, "Monsters University" is celebrated in topiary during the Flower & Garden Festival. Photo by J. Jeff Kober.

On the heels of the sucess of the Flower & Garden Festival, Epcot started the Food & Wine Festival in the fall of 2006. Some consider the latter to be more successful than the Flower & Garden Festival, though both are major players for building attendance in the parks. Other than key holidays like Christmas and the Fourth of July, the park is more crowded during the fall and spring than any other time of year; in addition to the nicer weather, the two festivals also increases attendance.

One popular festival tradition is a concert series at American Gardens Theater. Whether it's Eat to the Beat or Flower Power, these seasoned musicians still command crowds for the Baby Boomer audience at Epcot.

Festival-goers can pick up a special passport to get stamped throughout Epcot. In addition, meet-and-greets offer guests a chance to get autograph cards for HGTV stars. Photo by J. Jeff Kober.

Another tradition is the use of the former Wonders of Life pavilion as a Festival Center, with a variety of displays, classes, and retail opportunities taking advantage of an indoor space.

That space at the Festival Center, along with Odyssey prior, has allowed seminars to be taught by local experts as well as Disney's own horticuluralists. In recent years, it has also Incorporated some cable star power, as HGTV has become involved as a sponsor of the Flower & Garden Festival. 

Outdoor workout machines serve as unusual stations near Morocco. Photo by J. Jeff Kober.

Even with all of its additions over the years, however, I felt that the last couple of years were somewhat mundane. Sure, there was always a new Disney topiary, but otherwise, it felt that the other topiaries were simply being moved into a new position. Playgrounds were changed out between Future World and World Showcase. And how many times can you see a display on sprinkler systems? And have you noticed that there's nothing highlighted in the program on Future World West, where The Land pavilion stands?

Glass flowers made especially for the Oz playground were crafted by the studio of Craig Mitchell Smith. Each takes four days to make, from hundreds of hand-cut pieces of glass. Photo by J. Jeff Kober.

For those reasons, I initially thought I would pass on writing a review of this year's festival—but I was pleasantly surprised at the many little extras that the festival added. One of the biggest was a focus on bringing some of the elements of Disney's Food & Wine Festival to the Flower & Garden Festival, particularly in the form of food kiosks. Nature's bounty harvest should be celebrated during the Flower & Garden Festival... so barbecue sliders? Not so much. Still, it's a nice touch.

The Pineapple Promenade sells Epcot's first servings of the famous Dole Whip frozen desserts, with an added twist for the festival: a variation that includes rum. Photo by J. Jeff Kober.

So you see, there's plenty to celebrate at Epcot's Flower & Garden Festival. You'll enjoy all of the attractions that Epcot has to offer, beautiful weather this time of year, and a festival packed with plenty to do.

Do you have a favorite over the years? Share it with us! What makes you return time and time again to Epcot's Flower & Garden Festival?


  1. By Jeff Kober

    One reader correctly pointed out in an e-mail to me that she thought the Food & Wine Festival began in 1995 instead of 1996 as I noted, because she had a cook book from that year. She is correct. In identifying the date I was referring to a 2000 Millennium pamphlet noting that year's Food & Wine Festival to be their fifth. But that pamphlet came out in 1999 at the time the 2000 Millennium program was kicked off. So the Food & Wine Festival began in 1995. Good catch!

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